Tag Archives: Suriname

Finding Suriname’s legal history

Storage of archival records ready for return to Suriname - image F. van Dijk, Nationaal Archief, The Hague

Storage of archival records ready for return to Suriname – photo by F. van Dijk, Nationaal Archief, The Hague

Dutch colonial history is a subject which since 1975 with the Surinam independence sometimes came into view and in other periods seemed to recede into the shadows of neglect and disinterest. The activities surrounding the remembrance of the abolition of slavery in Suriname have rekindled public attention for this subject in the Netherlands. Since many years the Dutch National Archives helps the Nationaal Archief Suriname (NAS) in Paramaribo in creating finding aids and preparing the transfer of archival collections from The Hague to Paramaribo.

Apart from actions for the physical records of these collections, such as restoration and much more, digitization is one of the approaches to make them more accessible both for the people of Suriname and for everyone interested in their history. This week a tweet by the search platform Ga het NA – best translated as “Check it at the NA” – of the Nationaal Archief (@gahetNA) alerted to the online availability of 3,5 million scans, substantial results which merit attention. However, since much information on the websites of these two national archives is only given in Dutch I will provide here a concise guide to a number of the materials which touch aspects of Suriname’s legal history. The translation tools of the famous Grand Omnipresent Web Firm can redeem to some extent the problem of languages, but some guidance is helpful.

My interest in these digital archives grows steadily this month because I have at last added a page about digital archives in the digital corner of my legal history website Rechtshistorie. Adding the collections concerning Suriname certainly fills a gap. Instead of preparing this new page in silence and deploring its incompleteness I might as well invite you to look at it, and contribute your own constructive suggestions.

A tale of archives

Logo Nationaal Archief Suriname

In the forty years of Suriname’s independence much had to be done to provide the new nation with a proper national archive. Dutch support was certainly helpful, but not always completely welcome. The history of Suriname is documented in many archival collections at the Dutch Nationaal Archief, not only in those strictly dealing with parts of the Dutch colonial empire. A start at this more general level can illustrate this rapidly. At Ga het NA you can use 115 online indexes. An alphabetical overview of them takes three web pages. The first page contains for example a guide for Ghana, a country connected to Latin America by the slave trade. At the second page you should not only look for Suriname, but also for the West-Indies, in particular an index for pensions of civil officers. The third page continues with more indexes concerning Suriname and three indexes dealing with the Dutch West-Indian Company, one for the registration of investments at its Amsterdam branch (Kamer van Amsterdam) and two concerning the Dutch period in Brazil.

Logo Ga het NA - Dutch Nationaal Archief, The Hague

In the absence of a good site map at Ga het NA I have to refer you to the Dutch version of the fine research guide for Surinam history. You will quickly understand that politie stands for the police force, notarieel refers to matters dealt with by notaries, and the gouverneurs are the governors. The Raad van Justitie (1671, 1718-1828) and its successor, the Hof van Civiele en Criminele Justitie, were the main judicial courts. The Hof van Politie en Criminele Justitie (1684-1828) was another important court dealing with cases concerning public order and criminal offenses. The Rechtbank van Kleine Zaken was a minor court dealing with smaller cases. The Militaire Gerechtshof was the military court. The section for maps (kaarten) is also generous. Maps in the archival collection of the Topografische Dienst, the Dutch National Cartographic Service, have been digitized, as is the case for the collections Buitenland Kaarten Leupe and Leupe Supplement. The guide gives you also a succinct bibliography and some links to other websites. It would be most helpful to see immediately in such overviews where online scans are available, because this is exactly what many people today will foremost check for at any website. In a post about 200 years Dutch cadastral office I mention more collections with maps concerning Dutch colonial history.

Here the NAS scores clearly with a section simply called Archieven online. This overview contains currently 35 archival collections. The largest digitized collection with some 590,000 scans has been created by the secretaries of the government between 1722 and 1828, with some materials even dating from 1684 (Gouvernementssecretarie van de Kolonie Suriname, finding aid 1.05.10.1). Here you will find in particular some registers with plakkaten, ordinances (nos. 612 (1684-1782), 742 (an alphabetical index, 1781-1829), 788 (after 1796-1827)). Finding aid 1.05.11.14, Oud Notarieel Archief is the second largest collection with online scans. You can access here nearly half a million scans of notarial registers written between 1699 and 1828. The nos. 758-768 for the period 1707-1803 are registers of letters of exchange and other documents concerning trade, in particular maritime trade. Register 911 comes from John Martyn, “public notary residing at Paramaribo” between 1809 and 1814, during the period of English rule over Suriname. When you want to approach Suriname’s legal history from a comparative perspective such sources are invaluable.

First page of the 1839 dossiers of the Miiltiary Coirt, 1839

The only digitized surviving case record of the military court of Suriname, 1839 – NAS/NA, 1.05.11.5, no. 1, fol. 1r

For a combined civil and criminal court in Suriname, you can find digitized archival records in finding aid 1.05.11.13, Hof van Civiele en Criminele Justitie (1828-1832; 2,100 scans). For the same period there are scans of records from the Commissie tot de Kleine Zaken, a court for minor offences (finding aid 1.05.11.4; 533 scans). The collection for its forerunner with almost the same name, College van Commissarissen voor Kleine Zaken in Suriname (1740-1828) (finding aid 1.05.10.05) contains some 133,000 scans. The digitized records of the military court (Militair Gerechtshof) boil down to scans of a single case heard in 1839 (1.05.11.5). Among the 35 digitized collections I would like to point also to the Gecombineerde Weeskamer (1788-1828) (1.05.11.12; nearly 68,000 scans), an institution which dealt not only with orphans, but also with custody cases and belongings (boedels). A major addition to our knowledge of Jews in Latin America are the digitized records of the Portugees-Israëlitische Gemeente (1678-1909). Finding aid 1.05.11.18 gives you some 155,000 scans. You will find among the notarial registers mentioned above some volumes written by jewish jurators. By the way, the scans are currently hosted on a server of the Dutch National Archives. The faded quality of the case record shown here is a useful reminder how much work it takes to preserve and restore to useable conditions of records which survived tropical conditions and will return to a country near the equator.

Banner The Dutch in the Caribbean World

The NAS adds a generous links selection (in Dutch). Hopefully versions in Papiamentu (Sranantongo), English and Spanish will soon be added, following the example of the recently launched Dutch Caribbean Digital Platform, created by the Dutch Royal Library, the University of Curaçao and Leiden University. Its Dutch Caribbean Heritage Collections contains a few digitized books concerning law and government. Let’s not forget the general overview of archival collections held by the NAS. You can trace some 1,100 documents for Suriname and read transcriptions of legislative text using the portal The Dutch in the Caribbean World, c. 1670-c.1870 of the Huygens Instituut, recently moved to Amsterdam.

Even this concise introduction to a few highlights taken from a huge number of digital scans should convince you that the two national archives can be proud of their efforts to digitize, preserve and disclose priceless records of a country and a people. Suriname’s present condition is not at all good, but nevertheless it will hopefully help to have both physical and virtual access to records from another period where law and justice did not always reign supreme. Luckily having the originals back in Suriname goes together with creating worldwide access.

A postscript

In January 2017 started also a crowdfunding project to create online access to the slave registers of Suriname.

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Remembering slavery

How to deal with major questions, problems and conflicts in history? How should one write about them as a blogger? Subjects such as the abuse of power, law and justice, the undeniable role of violence, wars, the exclusion of people from society, and the outright systematic persecution of people for whatever reason, cry out for probing questions and research from many perspectives. Here I have promised several times not to avoid such themes and problems. One of the reasons that my first posting of 2013 occurs only late in January is exactly devoting time to one of the subjects which cannot be excluded from legal history. In my country the abolition of slavery in Suriname in 1863 will be commemorated. In this post I will look at some publications and websites dealing both with slavery as a general subject and with the history and aftermath of slavery in Suriname. Until 1975 Suriname, situated between British and French Guyana, was a Dutch colony. I will not aim at any kind of exhaustive treatment of the abolition of slavery in this country.

Slavery and Suriname

The commemoration of the abolition of slavery in Suriname in the year 1863 has thus far in particular received attention on Dutch television in the NTR-VPRO series De slavernij [Slavery] broadcasted in 2011. The series centered around the search of the Dutch singer Roué Verveer for his ancestry. The very fact that background information was presented by a well-known Dutch anchorwoman was criticized by some people complaining she figured as a kind of all-knowing presenter high above the black singer who seemed only to ask questions which he could not answer himself. Whatever the value of this critique, in the book accompanying the series, De slavernij. Mensenhandel van de koloniale tijd tot nu [Slavery. Human traffic from colonial times until the present] (Amsterdam 2011) edited by Carla Boos and a team of scholars, his quest for the history of his family is barely touched upon.

The website of the series presents a very well equipped nutshell guide to genealogical research for Surinam ancestors. In fact it is a model of its kind, and I have searched in vain for a similar comprehensive treatment of the subject at other websites. Surely, the Dutch Nationaal Archief offers a guide to its own online databases concerning slavery in Suriname, even in English. It is one thing to have access to digitized manumission and emancipation registers, but knowing how to use them is a prerequisite dealt with very clearly at the TV series website. A possible complaint about the website is much more a request, the need for translation of the Dutch version into English and Papiamento. The book by Carla Boos offers a very readable and lavishly illustrated introduction to the history of slavery in general, the slave trade in Africa, the Dutch Atlantic slave trade, slavery in Suriname and its living memory. The choice of documents written by all kind of people to tell stories from inside is excellent. The only things missing are a good overview of the images, and registers for subjects and names.

On a website for Dutch history on television and radio you can find several earlier items in a dossier on slavery, for example on the slave trade between Vlissingen (Flushing) in Zeeland, the Dutch fortress Elmina in Ghana, and Tobago in the Caribbean. Some digitized books about the history of Suriname can be found in the project Early Dutch Books Online (EDBO) which focuses on the period 1780-1800. In its digital collection Suriname 1599-1975 the library of the University of Amsterdam has digitized several old maps of Suriname and a small number of books, including the Dutch translation of Johan Gabriel Stedman’s book about his travels. You can also view an abridged version of this translation on a separate website – using Shockwave – but you can use more easily the complete version at EDBO. In the Digital Library for Dutch Literature you can find not only novels concerning Suriname and books in Dutch by authors from Suriname, but also the text of several editions of the Surinaamsche Almanak from 1820 onwards. This yearbook contains for example lists of plantations, their locations, owners and administrators. Documentation about the sea voyages made by slaves and their traders can be found in particular in the online database concerning the Trans-Atlantic slave trade of Emory University.

Slave traders and slaves

Slave traders and slaves – image from http://www.ninsee.nl

The activities for this year’s commemoration of the abolition of slavery can be followed most easily using the website of the NinSee in Amsterdam, the Dutch central institute for the study of the Dutch slavery past and heritage. The NinSee publishes studies and source editions in its own publication series. However, in my opinion it is a failure this website offers its information only in Dutch. If I have learned just one thing from the 2011 tv series it is exactly you cannot isolate the history of slavery from general history. The selection of scholarly literature about Dutch and Atlantic slavery on the website does redress this imbalance a bit. The NinSee institute is housed almost next door to the municipal archive of AmsterdamDigitized old maps of Suriname are abundantly present on the website of the Dutch Royal Tropical Institute. At the Memory of the Netherlands portal for digitized collections concerning the Dutch cultural heritage you will find many thousand digitized objects related to Suriname from a number of Dutch collections. Among them are apart from the Royal Tropical Institute the Tropical Museum in Amsterdam – its main website can be viewed in seven languages, and the collection can be searched at a separate subdomain – and the Royal Netherlands Institute of South East Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden, with its own digital image library. Six Dutch ethnological museums work together for a portal website where you can search their collections, but you can still search online separately in the collections of the Museum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden or its library catalogue. Perhaps it is wise to mention here also the project Caribisch Erfgoed [Caribbean Heritage] for the digitization of photographs taken between 1886 and 1970 by the Brothers of Tilburg, a Catholic educational congregation long active in Suriname.

At the start of a commemoration year leading up to the first of July, the very day on which in 1863 the abolition of slavery in Suriname was formally proclaimed, it becomes increasingly clear for me how important it is to view this history from many perspectives. While reading about Suriname I had also on my desk Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial. Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2011). Last year I wrote a post about the Athenian democracy, and I am sure I will learn more about it when taking the role of slavery in ancient Greece into account. Learning about slavery also sheds light on the practice of commemorations in contemporary society. One of the commemorations I will surely write about here in 2013 is the bicentenary of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

A postscript

At the website of the Stichting Oud-Vaderlands Recht, the Foundation for the History of Old Dutch Law, Dutch readers can find an overview of exhibitions, symposia, recent publications and websites concerning Suriname and slavery. One of the most salient new digital projects is an interactive map of the houses of slaveholders in Amsterdam in 1863 created by Dienke Hondius and her history students at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.